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CIA Director Gina Haspel. Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images

CIA Director Gina Haspel threatened to resign in early December after President Trump cooked up a hasty plan to install loyalist Kash Patel, a former aide to Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), as her deputy, according to three senior administration officials with direct knowledge of the matter.

Why it matters: The revelation stunned national security officials and almost blew up the leadership of the world's most powerful spy agency. Only a series of coincidences — and last minute interventions from Vice President Mike Pence and White House counsel Pat Cipollone — stopped it.

Behind the scenes: Trump had spent his last year in office ruminating over Haspel. Some of the president's hardcore allies, including Fox Business host Maria Bartiromo, were publicly raising doubts in his mind about Haspel.

  • He grew to distrust her, and instead wanted a loyal ally at the top of the CIA. But she wasn't the only national security official the president wanted out. Six days after the election, he fired Defense Secretary Mark Esper.
  • He replaced Esper with counterterrorism chief Chris Miller — and then stunned long-time national security hands by installing Patel as Miller’s chief of staff. Patel had no military experience, and was widely seen as a political mercenary bent on punishing the president's perceived “Deep State” foes.
  • But Trump told confidants he had bigger plans for Patel: He’d force out CIA Deputy Director Vaughn Bishop, replace him with Patel, and if Haspel quit in protest, then Patel or another loyalist would lead the CIA.

Patel found favor with Trump playing a central role in Republican efforts to counter-program special counsel Robert Mueller's Russia probe. He was the key author of a memo in which Nunes accused the Department of Justice and the FBI of abusing surveillance laws as part of a politically motivated effort to take down Trump. An inspector general later validated some of the Republican criticisms of the Russia investigation.

  • Trump had also become convinced that there were still all kinds of classified documents lying around inside the CIA that would harm his enemies — Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, former CIA Director John Brennan and others.
  • Trump regarded Patel as somebody who he could trust to do whatever he asked, without challenging, slow-walking, questioning his judgment or asking too many annoying questions. Patel told Axios that this characterization was a “total lie about how I behave with the president.”
  • Patel served for four months as principal deputy to Acting Director of National Intelligence Ric Grenell, was a terrorism prosecutor at DOJ, served on Trump’s National Security Council, worked at Joint Special Operations Command and served as senior official on the House Intelligence Committee.

Patel was traveling in Asia with acting Defense Secretary Miller when, abruptly, on Dec. 8, Trump summoned him back to Washington.

  • The Pentagon declined to answer questions at the time on why Patel was called back. But given the tensions running through the building after Trump replaced top officials with loyalists, it set off feverish speculation among senior Pentagon staff.
  • Patel had to link through multiple commercial flights to get back in a hurry. Meanwhile, Trump instructed White House chief of staff Mark Meadows to tell Haspel he was firing Bishop and replacing him with Patel.

Trump planned to name Patel deputy director of the CIA on Dec. 11 — in fact, the paperwork had already been drafted to formalize Patel’s appointment. That same day, Haspel decided for the first time in weeks to attend the president’s daily intelligence briefing.

  • Reports that she was on the ropes had been swirling for weeks and she'd been steering clear of the West Wing — a COVID hotzone. During the briefing that day, Haspel deftly reminded Trump of what had initially impressed him about her: As Trump often put it, she was tough, and good at killing terrorists.
  • After the briefing ended and Haspel had left the room, Trump asked a small group of his senior aides what they thought about Haspel. Pence delivered a full-throated defense, calling the CIA director a patriot, praising her job performance and trying to reassure Trump that she had his back. Cipollone had also repeatedly defended Haspel to the president.

Trump abruptly switched course, deciding to call off the plan to install Patel. But there was one glitch: Just down the hall in the chief of staff's office, Meadows had already told Haspel that Patel would be taking Bishop's job.

  • Haspel responded with the flinty aggression she was renowned for. She said she wouldn't stand for it, and that she would resign before allowing Patel to assume a position as her deputy.
  • Meadows had presented it as a fait accompli, but this was not a decision Haspel would take lying down. And now Trump had changed his mind. Meadows had to swallow his pride and reverse the order.

Driving the news: On Friday, MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell, a prominent election-overturning conspiracy theorist and lawyer Sidney Powell, visited Trump for his final Friday afternoon in the Oval Office.

  • Washington Post photographer Jabin Botsford caught a picture of Lindell’s notes before he entered the West Wing.
  • Among the pillow entrepreneur’s prescriptions for the president was the eye-catching line: “Move Kash Patel to CIA Acting.”

What they're saying: Patel declined to comment on the president’s early-December plan, but told Axios, “I do want to say on the record that I have never met, spoken to, seen, texted, or communicated with Mike Lindell."

Go deeper

Jan 25, 2021 - Axios Twin Cities

Mike Lindell moves the goalposts on a run for Minnesota governor

MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell waits outside the West Wing of the White House before entering on Jan. 15. Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

The will-he-or-won't-he speculation surrounding a possible gubernatorial run by MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell is destined to continue at least a bit longer.

What he's saying: Lindell told Axios that his focus is currently on proving his (baseless) claims of election fraud. He won't make a decision until that fight is resolved.

"Neanderthal thinking": Biden slams states lifting mask mandates

States that are relaxing coronavirus restrictions are making "a big mistake," President Biden told reporters on Wednesday, adding: "The last thing we need is Neanderthal thinking."

Driving the news: Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) said Wednesday he will end all coronavirus restrictions via executive order, although some businesses are continuing to ask patrons to wear face masks. Mississippi is lifting its mask mandate for all counties Wednesday, per Gov. Tate Reeves (R).

Cuomo: "I am not going to resign"

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo apologized Wednesday for acting in a way that made women feel "uncomfortable," but insisted that he has "never touched anyone inappropriately" and said he will not resign.

Driving the news: Cuomo reiterated in his first public appearance since sexual harassment allegations surfaced that he will fully cooperate with a team of independent investigators appointed by New York Attorney General Letitia James, but suggested that demands for his resignation from were simply "politics."